Rules are there for breaking… Enjambment and Caesura

In the last chapter Mr Fry taught us about the rules of writing in iambic pentameter (ti-tum, ti-tum etc). This chapter is about how to tweak and bend those rules to add life to a line of verse, in particular playing with the rules of line structure through: Enjambment and Caesura.

Enjambment – is when the sentence does not end at the end of a line of Iambic Pentameter but strides on into the next line.

Caesura –  a pause or ‘cut’ within a line, such as a comma or full stop.

‘They are crucial liberators of the iambic line… allowing the rhythms and hesitations of human breath, thought and speech to enliven and enrich the verse’.

But if we can bugger around with the rhythm of the verse is it still iambic pentameter? If it is still within iambic metre then why bother restricting ourselves to that line structure anyway? Why not make the line 14 iambs long, or fifteen?

At this point Mr Fry shouts at us in CAPITAL LETTERS. I normally hate it when people write in capital letters as it is essentiality the equivalent of adding the stage direction: actor shouts. I have a work colleague who does this in e-mails, and am often tempted to ring up and respond by bellowing down the phone my answer just to get my point across (I should add that I do not do this as I am not entirely a git). I’ll forgive shouty Fry, he is a teacher after all.

By the by, the only person who can legitimately speak in capital letters is Death:

.

"I meant," said Ipslore bitterly, "what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?" Death thought about it. CATS, he said finally. CATS ARE NICE.

Essentially, the metre of the poem, in our case iambic pentameter, is the material in which we are working. To move completely away from the material is to move into another genre entirely, a painter moving into sculpting for example. But within that medium the rules can be tweaked and changed in order to find the most apposite way of expressing the point.

‘Metre is the primary rhythm, the organised background against which the secondary rhythms of sense and feeling are played out.’

Here I feel a little parallel coming on: Twitter. A lot of people struggle to comprehend the 140 character restriction on twitter. They say such things as; ‘you can’t say anything worthwhile in 140 characters’ or ‘why bother restricting it to 140 characters, why not more or less’. The point is that the rule is what makes Twitter interesting. It is the struggle to clarify your thoughts and then fit them into those 140 characters. Like the ‘cheats’ in poetry there are other tricks and tweaks in Twitterland that help enable you to do this within the primary rule of 140 characters, a clever abbreviation, a smart bit of punctuation or a trailing sentence…

And so it is with metre. This is why the ‘tricks’ such as enjambment and caesura come to play. They are two key ways to work creatively within the boundaries of the metric medium.

So, the task at hand is to start off writing five pairs of non-rhyming Iambic lines, under five specific topics. These first five pairs of lines (a) should have no caesuras or enjambments.

The next task is to write another five pairs of lines (b), under the same topics and with the same meaning as the first lines, but to construct them with caesuras and enjambments.

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1. Precisely what you see and hear outside your window

(a) without:

I see outside the dark of winter time.

The sound of wind against the chimes all night.

(b) with:

The darken’d winter night, it lays outside

My room so cold, while chimes inflict their noise.

.

2. Precisely what you’d like to eat, right this minute.

(a) without:

A fleshy burger, red and charred for me,

Too charred I think as smoke alarms whine on.

(b) with:

The smoke! It chokes my lungs and yet desire

For beef and bun and cheese consumes my mind.

.

3. Precisely what you last remember dreaming about.

(a) without:

At work I wrote some text which caused a row.

A fools damn wit caused me forthwith to go.

(b) with:

I dream’t a stifling dream in which I came

To grief. Alas! An ill thought brief the cause.

.

4. Precisely what uncompleted chores are niggling at you

(a) without:

A sink so blocked and gross it needs to drain,

The fat and gunk inside the bend will stay.

(b) with:

Foul reek and stringy goo, sometime food scraps

Cling tight inside your drainy throat all day.

.

5. Precisely what you hate about your body

(a) without:

My knee it clicks and moans at strain and graft.

This moaning joint a feeble thing to see.

(b) with:

Achilles heel? Try knee. A click, a clunk,

A squeak, a pop. Achilles had it good.

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How was that? From the writers point of view it worked, I much prefer the (b) pairs of lines. This may partly be because in adding the Caesuras and Enjambments I had to think much more carefully about the sense of each line and how the break or carry over affected or added to the meaning. I can see why Mr Fry got all capitally on me.

I should also say as a general rule for this blog,  if you have an idle moment to follow the exercises as well then please feel free to join in via the comments boxes. I’d love to see other peoples examples.

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Next exercise takes us to the dreaded page 30 (where previous attempts have perished before) and Weak Endings, Trochaic and Pyrhhic Substitutions. Don’t worry, it all sounds greek to me as well (Zing!).

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7 Comments on “Rules are there for breaking… Enjambment and Caesura”


  1. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by quackwriter: RT @GentlemanAdmn: Rules are there for breaking. A new blog post: http://wp.me/pM0oI-J (A short Pursuit of Poesy no.4 is up as well)…

  2. horsebiscuit Says:

    but umm… it is possible to have no set metric structure to a poem, isn’t it? I mean, it doesn’t have to be five iambic feet per line; it can be seven iambic feet, and then nine iambic feet. At least, that is what I gathered?

    “An ode to dejection” has much variation in line length, but never looses the iambic thrust and rules therein of substitution.

    • thegentlemanadministrator Says:

      Thanks for the comment.

      What you say is very true, but we are talking Iambic ‘pentameter’ here, which by definition has 5. So we’re trying to stay within that structure but seeing how to twist the rules. More ‘rule’ breaking next post, which will be soon. promise ;)

  3. Andrew Ty Says:

    I haven’t gotten around to picking up this book, because while I do intend to hone my skills in metered verse, that’s not my focus at the moment. That said, it’s nice to turn up a discussion of this right around the time when I’m struggling with these issues in relation to free verse in general and to Denise Levertov’s poetics in particular.


  4. [...] Scribbled Poetry a prose ridden writer’s pursuit of the poesy. « Rules are there for breaking… Enjambment and Caesura [...]

  5. Ali Says:

    Hello. Great Blog. I don’t understand if the enjambment tweaks the metrical structure or totally changes it. Are we still mainly sticking to the syllabic beats. This is really puzzling me:)

    Also if the enjambment rhymes with the previous line is the rhyme less obvious than when it was end-stopped?

    Yours curiously

    Al

    • Tom Sykes Says:

      Hi Ali, thanks for commenting. This blog is going through one of its dormant periods, while I focus on other things, I’m sure I’ll pick it up again soon.

      In answer, I really am no expert but I guess it depends on what you want it to do, rules are there for breaking. Normally enjambment wouldn’t change the metre, but it could be more impact-full if it did, if say, it was combined with a weak ending or the following line was a trochaic.

      As to the rhyme, I’m not sure, try it out & feel free to post it in the comments for us to see if it does :)


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